The Unruly Regiment, consisting of mother-daughter duo Carolyn Scott-Jeffs and Lizzie Wofford brought to the VAULT Festival an engaging and engaged new musical. And it is absolutely stunning.
Fanny wants to sing in music halls. Given she possesses the unbelievably strong voice of Lizzie Wofford as well as her charismatic stage presence, she may well succeed. But Fanny feels she needs to tell a story – a story of her friend Elsie who, as her cabaret counterpart, also “wasn’t what you call a blushing flower” and definitely “as a matter of fact, she rented by the hour”. Although “happiest corpse” she probably was not. The story of Elsie goes from nought to 100 in no time. What starts as a cheerful, slightly sentimental and genuinely funny journey to the world of music halls and Victorian morality (with audience participation galore) takes a much gloomier turn in the second half. The 19th century that is so often romanticised on stage and on screen, with all its dark sides blissfully covered over, is here with an unforgiving world of misery – particularly for women, and even more particularly – for prostitutes.
“Fanny: a New Musichall” was written by Carolyn Scott-Jeffs, and brilliantly so. It is very well composed – a traditional musical theatre formula (introducing songs in the first half, reprising them in the second) and the deconstruction of the story as well as the balance between comedic and tragic elements create a seamless and internally logical whole. Characters she created are unaffectedly engaging and easy for the audience to empathise with, richly brought to life by Tim Ford’s clever direction. Lizzie Wofford who plays Fanny and Elsie (and virtually every other character in Fanny’s tale about Elsie) is a powerhouse. Tom Noyes as Fanny’s a bit “funny” pianist is wonderfully hilarious. The musical arrangements by Peter John Dodsworth are quite brilliant, above all in the reprisals that extract a wholly different meaning from popular show tunes.
The only downside is, “Fanny: a New Musichall” runs for only three performances during the VAULT Festival. It is definitely not enough for a show that great.
Important Art is the final show in an extensive line-up at the VAULT Festival 2020 from the improvised comedy syndicate Free Association. Packed with a mock showcase of the very best of high culture, Important Art satirises the inaccessible world of art and its clichés.
The show is split into three parts which have varying degrees of success. The first section is some so-called French-prov, that is, improvised ‘sneak peeks’ from a new French film which is performed by Amanda Stauffer and Clemence Billoud almost entirely in French. Graham Dickson (also the turtleneck-clad host for the evening) and Sophie Broido then take to the stage to perform a supposed snippet of a lost play from the famed American playwright Tennessee Williams. The show closes with Alex Holland and Chris Gau attempting to do some serious improv skits.
Dickson is a great host and both the production’s strongest comedian and actor. In his scenes with Broido, who also does well throughout, Dickson jumps between two very different roles with ease, before returning confidently to his hosting role.
Stauffer and Billoud are clearly both very talented but their French comedy will perhaps be lost on certain audiences. With little to no French, one would struggle to keep up with what’s happening on stage, and several rather blank stares from audience members unfortunately confirm this.
Their scenes would have been far more accessible if they had thrown in the odd French phrase or word but spoken in heavily accented English for most of their performance. It is unclear what point they are trying to make with this bit as though conversations about caca suggest that this is unlike a typical pretentious French art film, a pretty high level of understanding is still required to fully enjoy this part of the production.
Dickson and Broido lead the show’s best section, the theme of which is vaguely prompted by two nouns given by the audience. Even those unfamiliar with Williams’ work can understand, appreciate and laugh at the ridiculous tropes of fiction about small town American life. Broido and Dickson also have great chemistry and bounce off each other well.
The final section by Holland and Gau is amusing but their slapstick comedy won’t be for everyone. The duo establish that they are keen to do improv that covers serious topics, but their scenes always descend into physical fighting complete with smashing plates and ripping clothes. The premise is fun but gets old quickly, though the duo does manage to hit a sweet spot in terms of performance length.
The stage is void of any props other than two chairs which are joined by a table for Holland and Gau’s performance, and the music does well to create a feeling of faux sophistication.
Important Art has potential both in concept and its players, but it needs to reassess how it can appeal to and draw in those who may have initially been alienated by the show’s snooty title and borderline elite content.